(Antigua)- The 4th RORC Caribbean 600, started at 1100 on Monday 20th February. There’s a proverbial “jump up” going on at Antigua Yacht Club as over 500 competitors fly in to the magical island of Antigua from all four corners of the world – Falmouth Harbour is filled to the brim with astounding yachts. There can be few sporting events that can boast such a worldwide appeal with sailors taking part from all over the world including: Antigua, Australia, Austria, Canada, Cayman Islands, Croatia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Puerto Rico, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey and America.
This astounding diversity of nationalities is matched only by the astonishing array of yachts and personalities. The largest yacht competing this year is the magnificent Hetairos with a waterline length of 200′ (seen here), the world’s largest carbon composite sailing yacht (for the moment). While at the other end of the scale is a true “sleeper” of a competitor, none other than Jonty and Jack Layfield’s J/39 SLEEPER sailing in IRC 3 and IRC Doublehanded divisions on of the smallest yachts in the fleet. This father and son team, Jonty and son Jack are both RORC members and hale from Brighton, UK. Last year with a full crew, Jonty’s J/39 SLEEPER won class at Antigua Sailing Week.
“Sailing Two-Handed with my son, I don’t expect to be very competitive, we are not going to go flat out but treat the race more like a delivery trip,” admitted Jonty. “I have raced double-handed with my son back in England and I have been sailing with Jack since he was about five years old, we are more like friends than father and son. The great thing about sailing is that you have to get on with it; you can’t have any histrionics. Jack is working in Brazil at the moment and the RORC Caribbean 600 is a great way to spend a few days together.”
Past J/24 European Champion, now RORC Chief Executive, Eddie Warden-Owen believes that the RORC Caribbean 600 is especially attractive to larger yachts, however the ethos of the club maintains equal status to every participant. “A wide spectrum of yachts and competitors has decided that this is an event that is not to be missed. The club is delighted that people from all over the world want to take part. There is a mixture of world class sailors and Corinthian enthusiasts, but they all have one thing in common, a passion for offshore racing.” For example, pictured here is world-famous sailor/navigator Christian Ripard from Malta, recent winner on his J/122 of the Rolex Middle Sea Race.
“The average length of yacht for this year’s entry is over 70′. When the Royal Ocean Racing Club started this race in 2009, we felt it would appeal to larger yachts and that has proved to be the case. This year we have a significant number of Racing Maxis, Superyachts and Spirit of Tradition yachts. However, every yacht competing in the RORC Caribbean 600 is governed by the same set of rules. All of the competitors receive a warm welcome from the Antigua Yacht Club, regardless of their finish time or place. Since 1925, The Royal Ocean Racing Club has promoted offshore racing for all and in many ways the RORC Caribbean 600 typifies that cause.”
What’s the key to the race? Said one veteran navigator, “It’s unlike any other offshore race in that the average leg is only about 40 miles and for a navigator there is a lot to consider. Normally, a race is all about the weather and strategy but in addition to all that, this race takes you back to the basic problem of navigating around so many rocks and islands. Looking through all the legs, there is a broad mixture of sailing angles; there is a fair bit of reaching, but it is wrong to think that is not a challenge, especially with the speed sensitivity of modern high-performance boats. The course is more like a whole stream of complex coastal races.”
Some of the course tips included commentary from a past winner in 2009: “An early look at the weather and it looks like we are going to get normal trade wind conditions with a wind direction just slightly north of east, “classic 600″ conditions provided the weather pattern holds as it is.”
“This year, the start line will need to be significantly longer because of the size of the superyachts that have entered. It will be a magnificent sight from Shirley Heights. The yachts will tend to tack as close into the cliffs as they can to get a huge lift off the headland and there is a lot of current inshore. The yachts will want to get out of that adverse current. Once around Shirley Heights a close-fetching yacht can almost lay Green Island in one tack.
The leg up to Barbuda could well be a powerful reach but a good tip is that many yachts tend to over-stand the North Sails mark at Barbuda. After Codrington Point the wind can free off enormously as you run down the side of the island. The wind also tends to accelerate there and it is usually a monster reach-to-reach gybe.
The downwind leg to Nevis is usually not too tactical but it is especially worth looking out for squalls. I remember on Region Guadeloupe we overtook ICAP Leopard there because we got the right side of a squall and they didn’t. Significant gains and losses can be made in squalls. Look at the cloud formations as you approach Nevis. If the clouds are moving briskly that is a good sign of breeze, but if they are static the signs are there is a big wind shadow and it is probably best to head further west before turning the corner. In general, the best policy is to stay a bit offshore around the back of Nevis and St.Kitts, then try and lay Saba in one tack.
Although Saba is a small island it does have a fairly large wind shadow but it is usually a tough beat afterwards and you would tend to try to keep as much height as possible. The sea state can really pick up there due to a significant current. It is the first real taste of harsh ocean sailing for the crew and yachts. After making St.Maartin there are still 18 miles of short tacking. It is a hard-hitting part of the course, especially at night for the smaller yachts. What’s more, there are a lot of rocks that the fleet will need to be especially careful of.
The reach down to Guadeloupe is the first real chance for crews to get their heads down in the race but the start is a significant point tactically, getting the right angle after St.Barths can be crucial. In my opinion, you should stay slightly high on your course, as if the wind does go south of east, you could end up beating. Montserrat is on the layline and there is talk of leaving Montserrat to port, but in my opinion when there are normal trade wind conditions you shouldn’t benefit from going west of Montserrat, especially as in doing so you would have to sail a lot more miles and in foul current.
The approach to Guadeloupe is a key area of the race. There is typically a significant wind shadow on the north west corner of Guadeloupe, especially at night. Having said that, during the day you can actually experience a westerly sea breeze there. It is so variable that it is best to look at the clouds over the island and also keep a watchful eye. I always get my binoculars out before approaching Guadeloupe to see how other yachts are sailing up ahead. I have been trapped in an area of no wind, north west of Guadeloupe and watched as 30 knots was blowing through the channel, just two miles away. Many yachts may choose to put someone aloft to take a good look, but a good overall strategy is to stay well off, keep your distance maybe five miles offshore, sail a quarter of the way to Dominica so that you can lay Les Saintes.
les des Saintes marks the most southerly point of the course but I would really advocate turning back towards Guadeloupe after rounding Les Saintes, if the wind is in the northeast. Beat back towards Cappisterre but watch out, there are thousands of fishing floats. I wouldn’t go in any further than a depth of 50-100 metres. However, there is a massive lift inshore because the wind cascades down to the ‘north of Soufriere with the wind going to the south. Once inshore, stay there is my advice, don’t go out towards Marie-Galante or you will lose out.
Les Desirade is the most easterly part of the course and that is always a place with a rough sea state. Very confused seas with a lot of current, smaller yachts need to be mindful of the conditions that can be expected. After rounding, the yachts will come off the breeze, a big bare away and another time when crews can get there heads down, as it is 90 miles to Barbuda and there are no real tactics coming into play there, other than avoiding over standing the North Sails mark, which we have already covered.
Barbuda to Redonda is normally a very fast reach with yachts belting along going for line speed. It is worth keeping an eye out for squalls. Redonda is only a small island but it can throw out a significant wind shadow. I have seen races won and lost there so avoiding getting too close to Redonda. After rounding the last island of the course, no messing about, get right on the wind and head for Cades Reef on the north west coast of Antigua. There is a shelf extending out from Antigua some 16 miles and taking this route will be an advantage for less foul current, then work down the west coast of Antigua along the edge of the reef until the finish.
So, looks like Jonty and Jack have their work cut out for them, not just racing agains the clock against fully-manned crews, but a navigational and tactical challenge as well to play winds, currents, wind shadows. Best wishes to them. Sailing Photo Credits- Tim Wright/ Photoaction.com. For more RORC 600 sailing information